22 March 2010

Getting a Project Team Quickly Up To Speed

I am currently in the process of carrying out a project at a European energy company. In this project I have helped the project team recover from a disastrous first phase by helping set up a structured and fast start to the second phase of the project.

The project was originally staffed with a team of eleven technical people from across the company. The people chosen for this team represented a wide range of departments that dealt with the technology. The team worked for four weeks, and presented its results. The Steering Committee was disappointed with these results, as it felt that a) the team had not addressed the key issues, and b) had not developed a sufficiently detailed analysis of the "facts and figures" related to the technical elements being analyzed. A number of things went wrong in the first phase, and my key role has been to correct these issues in the second phase of the project.

The main problem the project team faced was that it had too little time to carry out any actual analytics. This was caused by an unrealistic deadline imposed by the steering committee, but also by the project using almost two weeks of the available four weeks in starting up the project and carrying out "team building" activities related to agreeing the goals and deliverables of the project. The excessive time spent on starting up the project was due to a number of inter-linked reasons. The key reasons are cultural, habit, politics, and insecurity in project leadership:
• The company in question is from Northern Europe, where egalitarianism is important. This general cultural trait is strengthened by the culture of the company itself which is also fairly flat in its structure, and believes in everybody having the right to state their opinions. This results in "open debate" being the default solution for setting up this type of projects.
• Habit was in this case mainly driven by the use of an internal process manager, who (rightly or wrongly) believed that this was the way that projects should be run. In this company, the type of team building through the bottom-up development of goals, deliverables, approach, etc is "the thing" that project managers do, and which probably work fairly well in this culture if the project has sufficient time.
• Politics played a key role in this project, as the best way forward for the technological asset being discussed was a highly political issue with extreme differences in opinions across the various departments of the company. This meant that all the team participants felt that they had to "push" their preferred solutions rather than focusing on the work to be done.
• The project leadership (both the formal project manager and the internal process manager) were open about not being used to running this type of complex project. This meant that they were not sure about how best to structure such a project, and were uncomfortable with "pushing" their views in a group of experts.

The second phase of the project was set up to minimize the problems encountered in the first phase and to maximize the probability of the project team being successful. The project started with the project leader. The project leader developed a very clear and structured overview of what the Steering Committee / key sponsors were looking for (goals and deliverables). This was put on paper, and tested with the sponsor / steering committee, and adjusted as required to ensure that the expectations on what will be delivered were 100% clear. Based on this, the project leader developed an overall approach for reaching the goals and deliverables. This plan included a small core team and a realistic estimate of the time required for reaching the agreed deliverables.

When agreement was reached with the steering committee and sponsor the project leader brought together the chosen team, and communicated the results of the first step. He asked the team for comments and feed-back, and adjusted the details of the plan for the good ideas and comments that were given. The structured and hierarchical start of the project meant that this process took less than one week instead of the two weeks in the first iteration of the project, and was also much more efficient as the total man-hours used were 25% of that used the first time around.

The structured and hierarchical start has also meant that politics have been minimized and effective use of the available resources maximized. The core project-related activities have been carried out through a mixture of sub-teams doing specific analytical tasks (within agreed milestones) and presenting and discussing the results with the rest of the project team. The role of the project manager in this phase has been to strictly follow-up on scope (is the team focusing on what they should be doing?), analytics (is the work being carried out correct?), quality of results (are the outputs from the team's work what it needs to be), and coordinating the work of the different work-streams.

At agreed moments the project manger and the core team have brought together the work of the individual teams and developed the overall conclusions and story-line. This has been presented to the whole project team and discussed (and revised) until the team agreed to the overall conclusions. The results were then presented to the steering committee in the form of interactive workshops.

The project is now in the final phase and the results are being discussed with the individual steering committee members before the final presentation. This will ensure a broad agreement to the conclusions that the project has developed and commitment to the follow-up actions suggested by the team.

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